- Associated Press - Thursday, February 11, 2016

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Missouri’s top two elected officials credited Ferguson on Thursday with pressing ahead with policing and court reforms despite a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit alleging that the St. Louis suburb routinely violated residents’ rights and misused law enforcement to generate revenue.

The civil rights lawsuit, filed Wednesday, came a day after Ferguson essentially rejected a settlement agreement with the DOJ by adding seven amendments to a proposal reached after months of negotiations. The plan sought to vastly improve police and municipal court practices in Ferguson, the town where 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, was fatally shot by white officer Darren Wilson in August 2014. Wilson was cleared of wrongdoing.

During a visit to Kansas City, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon told reporters he was “heartened” by Ferguson leaders pledging to press ahead with reforms despite the lawsuit - “a far different attitude than was there two years ago,” he said, when administrators facing certain issues “swept them under the rug.”

“That attitude shift is really important and something that I think is a positive step,” Nixon said.

Nixon did not directly address an Associated Press question about the appropriateness of the Justice Department lawsuit, saying he was not involved in negotiations. But he said Ferguson had “a real concern” about the affordability of the Justice Department’s mandates: “They don’t want to sign something they don’t have the dollars to pay for.”

Meanwhile, Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said in a statement that Ferguson leaders “are making a good-faith effort to adopt reforms to correct past problems. But the Justice Department demands would force the city to stop providing basic services to residents to pay for mandated wage hikes.”

Three Democratic members of the Missouri House, all from the St. Louis area, said in a statement that they are working on a proposal for an emergency loan fund to help Ferguson implement the reforms.

“If we can provide financial help in the form of a loan program, there is no reason for the city to hesitate in embracing the DOJ’s reforms,” Rep. Sharon Pace of St. Louis said.

But House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Republican from Poplar Bluff in southeast Missouri, said there is no budgeted money to bail out Ferguson, nor has there been a request from the governor to do so.

“This is a problem that I think Ferguson is going to have to figure out a way to work out,” Richardson said.

The Ferguson council voted 6-0 Tuesday in favor of the Justice Department agreement, but made changes significant enough that the federal agency deemed it a rejection. Mayor James Knowles III said the changes were necessary after an analysis indicated the reforms would cost the financially strapped town up to $3.7 million in the first year, and up to $3 million in each of the second and third years of the agreement.

One of changes would have removed a stipulation requiring significant police pay raises to police in order to attract better candidates, and more minority candidates. The city analysis said that provision alone would have cost about $1 million.

___

Suhr reported from Kansas City, Missouri. Associated Press writer David A. Lieb in Jefferson City, Missouri, contributed to this report.

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